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Shopping for a Sustainable Planet—Part I

Last week, Amazon delivered two razors in a box that could have held a winter parka, and then, presumably to prevent them from rattling around, the empty space was stuffed with bubble wrap. This is not the first time this has occurred. Over the holidays we received a non-breakable gift from West Elm, and it too came swathed in bubble wrap—enough to make a red-carpet ready dress that would still leave the wearer decently covered.

When you possess the heart of a crow, and every shiny object calls to you, it's difficult to curb the urge to shop. But seriously, where does one draw the line? If I forgo the purchase of X, will it save the planetary Y? If I can't live without it, do I buy it online or go to the store?

In an effort to streamline our household shopping habits, we've made some progress. To the good, Lee and I have eliminated about 98% of meat and animal products from our diets. So, we can celebrate a chunk of carbon savings there. Additionally, I've shifted most of my clothing purchases from new to gently used. But there's still the packaging and shipping to think about.

My ears perk up when people talk about minimalism. Although, it does sound like the kind of thing where one owns four forks and undies to last the week. In our house, Lee buys toilet paper in bulk—still. Maybe we'll try for basic, rather than minimalist. When we must make a purchase, what's the most environmentally friendly way to go about it?

Like many others, our online shopping increased during the pandemic. Now, even though life has opened up a bit, Amazon is still a thing. I've been telling myself that one truck delivering many goods is better than all of us out in our cars going to the shops. According to the research I've been reading, that's a definite maybe. In the end, it boils down to transportation more than the packaging—it's still about fossil fuels.

Studies show that when we buy online, we return more things and transportation costs can go up. We do better if we reduce impulse purchases and build more time into the process. If I put in my order and can wait for the delivery, the shipping can be consolidated with other goods in my area. If I think I need it now, there's an environmental cost to that—even when Amazon says it's free.

And, according to the people who study these things, if I decide to shop brick and mortar, I should do it all at once—consolidate trips and get everything I need in one go round. Don't split the list between online and in the car, because it all adds up to more vehicles on the road.

In the end, the most important consideration may be to think about whether the items on the shopping list are worthy of our limited natural resources. How can we make that assessment?

What I want is a carbon price tag on goods. What does it cost to manufacture a product, pack it, transport it? And then, if more energy is involved in its use, I want to know that too.

There is talk in the fashion industry and elsewhere of delivering such information; a carbon price tag analogous to a nutrition label on packaged food. Skeptics warn of the green-washing effect where a company might spin the data for beneficial effect. But we have to start somewhere.

What methods do you use to minimize the impact of your purchases?

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